I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost in preparation for reading the poem itself, and one of the things that has struck me — and I’ve noted to myself in the past — is the sheer breadth of Lewis’ reading.
In this book, Lewis discusses the following works:
- Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
- Virgil’s Aeneid
- Augustine’s City of God
- Dante’s Divine Comedy
- Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
- Other of Milton’s works
He makes allusions to and citations of Cicero, Lucretius, St Athanasius, St Ambrose, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Keats, Plato, G K Chesterton, Shakespeare, John Donne, Layamon, Beatrix Potter, Renaissance guys I don’t know, Jules Verne, H G Wells, and more.
He brings into his discussion literary criticism of Milton from Alexander Pope to T. S. Eliot.
A Preface to Paradise Lost is not an isolated work in this regard. In his Introduction to St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis makes mention of reading Athanasius in Greek and finding him as easy as Xenophon.
In The Discarded Image, Lewis draws the reader’s attention to a host of mediaeval works and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the Platonic system as laid out in the Timaeus. A glance at Selected Literary Essays shows us literary criticism on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Jane Austen, Shelley & Dryden (with reference to Eliot), Walter Scott, William Morris, and Rudyard Kipling. The introduction to The Great Divorce betrays the fact that Lewis was a reader of science fiction (or scientifiction as he called it); his letters include one to Mervyn Peake praising Gormenghast to the skies.
He also, of course, read the fictional and critical works of his friends, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Hugo Dyson.
The reference to Athanasius and Xenophon, when taken with his quotations of Lucretius, Augustine, and Aquinas in Latin, are a reminder that the scholar born in 1898 has an advantage over us born in 1983. However much Lewis may have disliked his boarding school (there are certainly relational and social problems with the method; let us not glamorize it), he came from it equipped with a knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek and the literature of the ancient world that would enable him to approach European literature from the Middle Ages to today from a much sounder perspective than those of us with no more Latin than amo, amas, amat at the end of OAC (Grade 13), no Greek, and a knowledge only of Homer’s Odyssey and Sophocles’ Antigone as far as the Classics are concerned.*
Nonetheless, Lewis had broad interests. These make him stand out from Tolkien for whom English literature after Chaucer was of no interest, and Romance languages a bore. Tolkien was a very good — nay, a great, philologist; he produced a critical edition and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His work on Beowulf is still worth reading. His contributions to The Oxford English Dictionary are not to be forgotten.
Yet whereas Tolkien could get his friends interested in Germanic philology enough that Lewis and co. were learning Old Norse for fun so they could read sagas themselves, when Lewis made a reference to Ariosto in a review of Tolkien’s fantasy work, Tolkien expressed disgust at the Italian poet of the Renaissance.
I do not diminish Tolkien, but his achievements are of a different nature from Lewis’.
I only wish that I will be able to write something with the breadth of A Preface to Paradise Lost when I’m in my early 40s …
*Classic sword-and-sandals films notwithstanding.